Backstage with Lenny Pickett

an Interview by Sean Packard

Interview conducted by Sean Packard

Lenny Pickett grew up in Berkeley California before joining the Tower of Power horn section in the early ‘70s.  While touring and recording with Tower of Power, Pickett made a name for himself as a phenomenal tenor saxophone soloist, horn section leader, and arranger.  After leaving Tower of power in the mid ‘80s, Pickett went on to perform with and arrange for artists including David Bowie, The Talking-Heads, Laurie Anderson, and the Borneo Horns.  He has also been awarded a Bessie Award for composition. In 1985, Pickett joined The Saturday Night Live Band as the featured tenor saxophone soloist. Since 1995 he has served as musical director for the band.  Pickett is currently a jazz faculty member at New York University.

Sean Packard: It has been said that you are mostly self-taught.  Did you learn from any specific records or people that you played with?

Lenny Pickett: I didn't attend music school and I stopped going to high school in the 9th grade. That doesn't mean that I am uneducated. The kinds of music that I have spent my career playing are not taught in formal education environments. I learned my craft over a long time by working with many musicians and by following my interests. I also met many people that were generous with their time and knowledge. Being self-taught means pursuing learning without the benefit of more formal methods of education. Those methods were not available to me. Also, formal methods of learning to play most of the music that I've based my career on just don't exist.

SP: You are famous for your altissimo range.  Are there any specific things you did to work on extending your range?

LP: I practiced endless long tones and harmonic exercises. I also played along to the radio or to records to keep my pitch honest. I am still extending my range...

SP: How did you join up with Tower of Power?  Did you know how popular the band was going to become right from the start?

LP: I met the members of Tower Of Power while playing gigs in the bay area when I was a teenager. They invited me to join as a replacement for someone who was leaving the band. They were already very popular in our area when I met them.

SP: What were tours with the band like?  Any specific stories that stick out? 

LP: The tours were very intense, both musically and travel wise. It was so intense that my memory of it is a blur of buses, airplanes, airports, venues and performances. Also, I joined that band 40 years ago and I have been out of the band for 30 years, so my memory has been obscured by time and age.

SP: You’ve been playing with the Saturday Night Live Band since 1985, and have been the musical director since 1995.  How did you get your start on the show?

LP: I was asked to audition, and Howard Shore (the musical director) and G E Smith (the band leader) hired me.

SP: What is a typical week like preparing for the show? 

LP: I don't know if there is any such thing as a "typical week". Every week there is a new guest host and there are new sketches to help out with. We make up new music for comedy sketches each week and we rehearse a number of songs for the studio audience.

SP: What is it like playing on live television every Saturday night? 

LP: Twenty-two times a year, we play for a live television studio audience of about 250 people. There is also a 2 hour long dress rehearsal with the same size audience that we also play for. No matter what else happens, we start the show at 11:30 because it is broadcast live! We play a half hour warm up show before the air show and also before the dress rehearsal. We play music throughout 9 of the commercials. 

We play the show's opening theme after someone says "LIVE FROM NEW YORK.” and we play the closing theme under the credit roll when the show is over. We also make music for the comedy (some prerecorded and some played live) and we play filler music (if something goes wrong during the dress rehearsal). 

It's like a lot of other gigs. We learn and rehearse new music and perform to entertain people. It also resembles a live theater performance in many respects. Perhaps the biggest differences between TV work and other types of gigs are the exacting precision of the timing and the extremely technical nature of television production.

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